An unprecedented number of Iranian sportspeople have broken rank to condemn the “disgraceful” death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman from Saqqez who fell into a coma after she was abducted by the “morality patrol” in Tehran. Not only the anticipated faces but athletes who rarely publicly condemn the regime spoke out in the aftermath.
Ali Karimi, a former star of Iran’s national football team, wrote on Instagram: “Iran’s next Kaveh is a woman.” The reference was to Kaveh Ahangar, a blacksmith and mythological figure, who is said in the Shahnameh to have led a revolt against the invading snake king Zahak some 5,000 years ago.
Elsewhere, he wrote: “Not even the waters of the Zamzam [a well in Mecca believed by Muslims to be holy] can wash away this disgrace.”
Ali Daei, another ex-football player and Iran’s most famous abroad, also posted a response on Instagram. “My daughter asks me, what happened?” he wrote. “What answer do I have? For what sin?" He also published a picture of Mahsa Amini and wrote: "What have they done to this land?"
Voria Ghafouri, a former player for Esteghlal currently based in Khuzestan, also posted a reaction but hours later the page was deleted. Two years ago after Ghafouri slammed the hanging of wrestler Navid Afkari, the same happened to his Twitter page.
Several other players appear to have been convinced – or made – to delete their posts in tribute to Mahsa. Alireza Jahanbakhsh, captain of the national team, had posted a beautiful picture of a girl whose body merged with Tehran’s Azadi Tower, her arms raised toward a group of doves flying overhead. “And our girls’ hair is covered with a shroud,” he wrote. Hours later, the post was gone.
Ehsan Hajsafi, another player of the Iranian national team, also posted a picture and text in a similar vein, but removed it from Instagram in the evening. He is understood to have been contacted by the Football Federation about it.
Others, though, were undeterred. Sardar Azmoun, a striker for the Iranian national team and Bayern Leverkusen, wrote: "If these are Muslims, God make me a non-Muslim."
Masoud Shojaei, a former captain of Team Melli, wrote on Instagram: "Her life was sacrificed for her hair." Others expressed their sorrow at Mahsa’s death: “We have seen no color but black,” wrote Eesteghlal player Mehdi Ghaedi. Javad Nekonam, formerly of Team Melli and currently the head coach in Khuzestan, wrote: “I feel pain in my veins, and fire in my bones and soul. Hossein Mahini, a former player of national football team and Persepolis, wrote simply: "We hate you.”
Athletes of other disciplines have also responded with outrage. Famous runner Maryam Tousi wrote: “Today it was Mahsa's turn, tomorrow it will be another woman's.” Farzaneh Fasihi, the Iranian women’s sprint record holder, said: “Anger, hatred and sadness are my feelings today. Curse the cruelty and the tyrant. Break the hand that is raised against the Iranian women."
Rarely since the hanging of Navid Afkari have this many members of the Iranian sports community united in the face of one issue. It comes even though in recent years, and ever since an order in February 2019 by Ali Khamenei to “remember where your security comes from”, current and ex-football players in particular have been under pressure to censor their views online. Masoud Shojaei, Voria Ghafouri, Ali Daei and Mehdi Mahdavikia in particular have been made by the Federation and its president Mehdi Taj to delete posts.